Happy Hour with Kait: IPA Education during a Blizzard

This happy hour dawned with snow and high winds, otherwise known as a blizzard. 

I ping Kait. The wind with the snow is not making for great driving conditions. I have to drive back that way eventually anyway, but I’m just putting it out there …

(Wisconsin translation: I think it’s not a good idea to have happy hour during a blizzard.) 

Kait: I do think it’s slightly starting to settle down … maybe.

(Wisconsin translation: Toughen up!)

I did, and Kait was right (Kait, the Peninsula Pulse’s resident beer expert and the brewery coordinator for the Door County Beer Fest, is always right) – but no one else seemed to know this. When we arrived at the Bridge Up taproom on the lower level of Sonny’s Pizzeria on Sturgeon Bay’s west side, we had the whole place to ourselves.

The single-batch craft brewery has six flagships on tap and another 15 one-offs brewed throughout the year at various times. Tonight, we were all about IPAs. 

“I used to not like IPAs,” Kait said. “The bitterness, the smell. I can’t tell you what changed it. There isn’t a lot of ambivalence about IPAs. You like them or you don’t.”

We eased into our first of two beers with head brewer Trent Snyder’s Harbors & Bays – a 6% ABV (alcohol by volume) West Coast-style IPA – served by taproom manager and assistant brewer Tylor Torstenson.

Aside: It’s called Bridge Up because when Snyder was on his way to a meeting about this very brewery, he called to say he’d be a bit late because the bridge was up. He jotted it down as a possible name, and voilà.

Back to the taproom.

Kait explained that West Coast IPAs use a type of hops with higher aromatics and more bitterness. In this one – described on the menu as a medium-malt, low-to-medium bitterness, easy-drinking beer – I could taste oranges or citrus behind it all. Kait didn’t necessarily share my perception, but neither did she pour cold beer all over it.

“That’s what’s great about beer,” Kait said. “It’s all different for everyone.”

Apparently, so is the IPA origin story.

“There are many misconceptions about how IPAs came about,” Kait said. “The longest-standing, most-believed is that the East India Company was exporting beer to the colonies in India, and to make the long journey, they had to add the hops and up the alcohol.”

Sounds plausible to me. Then again, I have no clue how far that distance was, or how quickly those ships could travel, or how long it takes for beer to go bad – and I’m not good at word problems even if I’m not drinking an IPA.

“Probably isn’t true,” Kait said, saving me from exhausting my cerebral cortex. The more likely story is that the British India Company held all the contracts with the commanders of the ships in the 1700s, and hoppier beer sold better in hotter climates. 

“The truer story has to do with, as everything does, trade and making money,” Kait said.

Another truism: If necessity is the mother of invention, next to that proverb should be a mug of beer. 

“Most beer styles came out of necessity because they used local ingredients, local water, local yeast,” Kait said. “So most beer styles evolved because this is what they had in this area.”

Though IPA stands for India Pale Ale, it’s not a pale ale per se. An original IPA may be closer to a pale ale, Kait said, asking for a pour of pale ale so I could taste the difference. I cleared my pallet with some of the free, serve-yourself popcorn we’d been eating by the handful since we arrived.

“Lower hops levels, lower alcohol,” Kait said.

There aren’t official standards for IPAs, pale ales or any other style of beer, but there are guidelines from the Beer Judge Certification Program. This worldwide nonprofit certifies individuals, competitions and judges in an effort to get the brewers on the same page – and neophytes like me more literate. The wordsmith in me also appreciated the beer-style guidelines they publish. Who knew that a “funky-tasting” beer could be a good thing, or that anyone would intentionally craft a brew that tastes like a horse blanket?

But I didn’t visit the certification program’s website until after happy hour, so all I had to say about pale ale versus the IPA was that it did taste different – less of an edge, a smoother quality. Kait looked at me patiently. (The face of adults when listening to six-year-olds describe their day came to mind.) 

Then she set our second beer on the high-top table. This was her favorite Bridge Up IPA: Stubborn Sturgeon, a New England hazy IPA, 7% ABV. The first IPA was clear and light amber in color. This one was cloudy and straw colored. 

“That depends on the yeast,” Kait said. “Some settles well; some doesn’t.”

Halfway through this second beer, the conversation about the pausing of the Earth’s core and good yogis gone bad veered wildly off point. I steered us back, asking Kait why this was her favorite. 

“It tastes good and yummy, and I like it,” she said. 

You don’t sound like much of a beer connoisseur – with all due respect. Kait takes the bait.

“I think it’s very citrus forward,” she said. “It’s not as astringent as some hazy IPAs. I think there is a good balance between hops and ABV.”

By now, the acronyms washed over me like the shades of pink and orange that burnished the icy bay and the massive freighters in the city’s shipyard waterfront. Everything was visible through the large, western-facing windows. This was the cold heart of winter, and the beauty was hypnotic. Seasonals and visitors didn’t know what they were missing.

That could have been the beer talking, though. I shook from my reverie.

Your favorite IPA?

Kait uses a comparison to support her choice of 90 Minute from the Delaware-based Dogfish Head Craft Brewery. She compared that with Hopslam from Bell’s Brewery in Michigan, which she said has gained a kind of cult following when the brewery releases it once a year. 

“I’ve done a side by side with 90 Minute, which is better,” Kait said. “And if your opinion differs – get over it.”

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